Strawberry shortcakes and “Sweetabaga” sweet potato and turnip waffles are the staple foods at Pink Waffle, Roux Kehoe’s new mobile restaurant. It debuted in early May with stops outside a Portland brewery and a Scarborough gym.

“The weekend was a complete success,” he says. “I sold out at the brewery about an hour earlier than expected … and got great feedback on the waffles.”

Kehoe, a new member of Portland’s Fork Food Lab, a shared industrial kitchen and culinary incubator, says he served about 70 customers in his first weekend. While initially focusing on the greater Portland area, he eventually plans to move his Durham-based trailer to Brunswick and Lewiston-Auburn – one of the perks of having a company that can travel anywhere. His car is a former Fryeburg Fair concession vehicle that he bought second-hand for around US $ 30,000 and turned into a waffle shop with wheels to “stop hunger on the sidewalk”.

“I’ve always been a big fan of waffles and I like the freedom that mobile dining offers,” says Kehoe, who spent some time in Belgium – a country known for its waffles – during his European honeymoon.

Photo / Tim Greenway

Roux Kehoe, a restaurant industry veteran and new food truck entrepreneur, says the Pink Waffle served about 70 customers in its first weekend.

Regarding the name of the company and its Instagram identity, he says: “I tried to come up with something funny and I love the color pink.”

Welcome to the wild and insane world of food companies on wheels, a segment that emerged in Maine – and elsewhere – during the pandemic when traditional restaurants were closed or completely closed for personal dining. That opens up new entrants like Kehoe who are hungry to start a business at a fraction of the cost – and the hassle – of an inpatient facility, as well as new sources of income for existing businesses. Even long-established companies like DiMillo’s in Portland are entering the battle and planning to have their own truck with a crew of five on the market by the end of May. While every business is different, they tend to have memorable names, a strong social media presence, and creative cuisine – a far cry from the old cattle trucks that some reports said were the country’s first food trucks.

Today’s boom seems to continue even as traditional restaurants reopen and remote work keeps people away from downtown offices. Across Maine, a host of new food companies on wheels are springing up faster than you can say “Food Trucks” or “FoodTrux,” the name of a Portland-based locator app that started with big plans as an industry in 2020 is growing and live events are coming back .

“At the moment there is an absolute need for more trucks, and I do not assume that demand will decline any time soon,” says FoodTrux founder and CEO Matt Noone. “The scene will keep exploding.”

Based on his business registration research, Noone estimates that there are more than 200,000 food trucks nationwide, not counting the growing number of hot dog, dessert and coffee trucks – and predicts that in Maine that number will be around in as many years from today 100 will double. Eventually, he expects Portland to designate certain areas as food truck parks as that part of the country slowly moves closer to western cities like San Francisco and Denver.

“The Portland scene will never be able to back up the numbers of some of the larger cities on the west coast, but I can imagine Maine will have 200 trucks in the next few years,” he says. “I think it’s sustainable.”

Portland’s appeal

As Maine’s largest city and foodie capital, Portland is a huge draw for mobile food companies, with 26 current licenses and 27 pending applications through April, according to city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin.

She says Portland is well on its way to granting more than 100 new mobile food business licenses in 2021, or about double the annual average for the past five years; She notes that the numbers only represent places that serve food for eating, not retailers that offer packaged foods. During the pandemic, a number of trucks introduced online pre-order and collection.

The cost of obtaining a license in Portland without an overnight sale permit is $ 546 for a food truck and $ 322 for a mobile cart or ice cream truck, plus an annual renewal application fee. That’s on top of the $ 50,000 to $ 70,000 it takes to start a food truck business.

But whether it’s a food truck, food trailer, or mobile cart, it’s all cheaper than starting a physical restaurant, which can easily cost $ 250,000 to $ 300,000.

Why so many food trucks now?

SCORE Maine’s Deputy Director, Nancy Strojny, who oversees entrepreneurs, sums it up in these factors: “Portland is currently an underserved market, the barrier to entry is low, and in a post-COVID world, street food is a safe and easy alternative to brick and mortar Mortar. Food trucks and mobile carts help build a community. “

At the same time, she notes that some aspiring food truck owners are mistakenly assuming that getting started is easy and takes little time.

“In fact,” she says, “it’s running 24/7 during the season and there are so many moving parts. Yes, it does require limited overhead compared to a restaurant, but as a first-time operator it’s a steep learning curve. You learn while you go. “

This certainly applies to eight new Fork Food Lab members with mobile food companies, from the Vietnamese sandwich truck Vy Banh Mi to a coffee truck due to start in mid-June, according to Fork’s managing director Corinne Tompkins.

She says that while the majority of owners are seasoned professionals looking to generate a source of income with a mobile business, some are brand new, including two farms. To cater to the growing number of mobile food businesses using Fork as a base, the nonprofit recently introduced a 15-minute reservation system so that no more than four trucks or trailers can dock there at a time.

“I think it will be an effective change,” says Tompkins, “and it will allow us to generate a lot more revenue.” In general, Executive Director Bill Seretta talks about membership trends amid Fork Food Lab’s own transformation to e-commerce During the pandemic: “We have noticed a significant increase in the demand for our services from many other food trucks. That made it interesting for us. “

He points to several Fork Food Lab alumni who have opened traditional restaurants, while Tompkins says there is also a strong financial incentive to keep a trucking business going.

Nationwide scene

The food truck scene extends well beyond Portland and extends across the state. According to spokeswoman Jackie Farwell, 526 mobile businesses are currently registered with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

In Auburn, Randy and Deborah Smith own a poutine restaurant called Pinky D’s Inside Side by Each Brewing and a food truck of the same name that specializes in the Canadian dish of french fries with curd and sauce. They started food trucks in Portland 10 years ago when there were only a handful and are in the process of launching a new truck called the L / A Taco – like in Lewiston-Auburn and Los Angeles.

There, in December, they researched and ate at taco shops in East LA to really understand the traditional street tacos they want to serve and the vibe surrounding street food culture.

Photo / Tim Greenway

Randy Smith, seen here at Pinky D’s Poutine Factory Truck that he runs with his wife, also has an auburn restaurant of the same name. The couple are preparing to launch another truck, L / A Taco, to serve East Los Angeles-style street tacos.

Unimpressed by the growing field of rivals in the food truck, Randy Smith says: “Our goal as an organization is always to get better and keep moving forward.”

They are expanding after being forced to shift gears with their existing truck during COVID when they lost business at canceled live events but gained several new customers as they plan to do with their taco business.

“We’re all looking forward to it because it’s different,” says Randy Smith. “It could be better or worse [than Pinky D’s]but it will be fun. “

Meanwhile, Alexis Walls and Amanda Smith recently paused their food truck at Bar Harbor to open a small restaurant of the same name, Melt, on Main Street and a similar menu, mostly made up of sandwich melts. But the truck won’t be in hibernation forever.

“Ultimately,” says Walls, “we would like to see the bricks and mortar in place and a food truck too.”